Part one of a series
Two views of how to overwhelm racism with dignity and professional strength
By David Hugh Smith
Emerson Foster stepped into the company foyer looking ready to step directly into a management position. Dressed in a new suit, crisp white shirt, blue tie, Emerson sat down to wait, his shined shoes glowing with dignified luster.
There were two other men in the lobby, both white. One was watering plants and the other, obviously from a delivery service, was dressed in a delivery-guy uniform and had a manila package tucked under his arm.
“This woman comes bounding out of the elevator. So I stand up expecting she was there to see me. She walks over to the gentleman who was in the (delivery-guy uniform) and puts her hand out and says ‘Emerson?’
“I know she felt really badly. I didn’t mention it. I chalked it up (that) maybe this was her standard world view. It was really jarring, (but) when I think of it today I (can) laugh.”
Emerson did step into management – but not at that company. Today, after climbing steps up the corporate ladder, he is a vice president, human resources, for food services giant Sodexo, which has offices in Canton, Mass.
“What happened to me was a teaching moment,” Emerson says. “It calls for more activism in our engagement. Today when you see people raising their voices (it’s) because we know we’re… at the point where we need to address the systemic issues that are causing these things to happen.”
Emerson is one of five Black professionals I interviewed to learn about issues they have faced related to prejudice, and to get their ideas about how to transform a working world that sometimes focuses on skin color instead of qualifications, accomplishments, and potential. I also asked for suggestions how someone of color can overcome prejudice in a workplace environment – both to get a job and to be allowed to succeed in this job.
In this first part of the series, we focus on Emerson Foster and on Manie Forrest – on their ideas and a slice of their experience as Black professionals.
“Keep your eye on the end game,” Manie Forrest says. “And then (when you get the job) you can change the game.”
Indeed, Manie has brought her caring, inclusive, and, moreover, transformative attitude to the teaching jobs she’s held at schools over decades. She says that: “One of my goals is to elevate peoples’ thought.”
Manie grew up in California in a family she describes as being Creole. “(There are) all colors of the spectrum in our family. Languages galore. My great grandfather (in fact) was white Irish.
“We were raised to know that when we have a goal (to) not recognize obstacles. Why would color stop you from doing something? Why would you let the color of your skin make you hesitate?”
For many years, Manie’s goal was educating kids who were “slipping through the cracks.” Kids ready to learn, but who needed the right teaching approach.
Her own childhood was carefully orchestrated by her family, including where they lived, so that she would not have to deal with the jarring and hurtful impact of racist communities and racist schools. As a result, it wasn’t until her early teens she was introduced to prejudice: She heard her grandmother ask a landlord if they accepted Black people. “I didn’t get it. (In my family) we didn’t speak about color. We didn’t see color.”
But in the years since, Manie has definitely has seen racism. While her own approach to employment has helped her avoid many issues, she’s seen ugliness expressed toward co-workers.
Manie’s approach to finding work is: “You are going into a place to get a job. Obstacles – ignore those. Keep walking forward. . . .
“You are looking at the final result of what you want. (Treat people) [kindly but professionally and firmly. Like you’re already in that job. You keep it all professional. And on a need-to-know basis.”
She spoke about about a professional acquaintance who expected not to be hired when she interviewed for jobs because of the color of her skin. She was “very, very upset and very sad.” Indeed, when Manie knew her, she was not particularly successful finding work.
Manie suggests, “Don’t worry about what other people think. It’s none of your business…. And [w]hen you get into the interview… don’t think you are lower than that person (interviewing you). You need to speak with them as if you already are in that position.”
Manie mentions that often when someone expresses racism toward Blacks and they are white they “also they don’t treat people of their own race fairly.”
Manie counsels: “Follow your dreams.” And: “Don’t assume the color of your skin will stop you from getting the job.”
She also recommends everyone “get away from categorizing.”
A woman arrives for a job interview. There is no reason to categorize her to someone else as being “A Black woman,” or an Asian, or anything else. She is just a woman.
“People have to model what they believe. I don’t say, “My friend Jane, she’s Black.”
Today, Manie is an independent Spanish tutor, generally working online.
Getting back to Emerson, we spoke at length about his role as a “mentor, connector, a resource to individuals who are looking to engage in career discussion, find opportunities, develop themselves.” He also works with the student population and workforce development. “It’s a professional responsibility.”
(In part two of this series, Okechukwu Anochie, a medical doctor in Worcester, Mass., also will discuss the importance of mentoring and being mentored.Okey will share his own experience rising above an indignity – of being randomly escorted to his car by police while walking back to it from a job interview.)
Emerson considers helping others “the most impactful part of my background.”
Among Emerson’s many personal and community activities has been his involvement in creating and supporting Bottom Line, an organization that has helped, “thousands of low-income and first-generation students get to college, stay in college, and earn their degrees” (from the Bottom Line website).
Emerson credits mentoring with providing him with a big leg up. While he was working for corporate Stop & Shop, for example, he was mentored by two top executives there who advised him and nurtured his career.
I asked Emerson to discuss how one can address racism and make it a non-issue in one’s own career. He responded, “The burden is really on the company. Most companies now have announcements about . . . being equitable and fair. What we can do as Black professionals is hold these companies accountable (if they don’t act on their promises).”
I also asked Emerson for a forecast for the future. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, are we truly awakened to the need to treat everyone with dignity and kindness — without assumptions and prejudice based on race?
“I’m cautiously optimistic. We have to make sure this is not just a moment in time. And we have to keep our foot to the pedal because, unfortunately, this country seems to forget or get fatigued around addressing this issue. We need to keep (fairness to all) in our consciousness so that this is not just a moment in time.”
Subsequently in this series we’ll profile Stephanie Davis, a Black professional in the technology sector who is unwilling to accept obstacles or limitations. Speaking for myself, her extremely helpful ideas preoccupied my own thought for several days after I talked to her. And, of course, we will talk with Okechukwu Anochie, whose roots in Nigeria have provided him with both encouragement and a fresh perspective on being a Black professional/medical doctor. We’ll also talk with Harold Sealls, who for decades worked in TV broadcasting – and now is looking to recast his career.
These interviews will provide ideas not just for Black professionals, and encouragement for whites for treating everyone fairly and equitably, but help for everyone looking for others to respect their skills and accomplishments and potential.
If you have ideas and information to add, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Dave Smith, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Hugh Smith serves as editor of the PDC Post. He also is a freelance writer/editor/oral historian.